Grief

In mid-march this year, I found myself unable to function. When the kids went to school, I just crept into bed and if I was in Kilifi, I would most certainly have gone for a malaria test. I felt really sick. My husband sent me a little text, telling me he understood how hard this time of the year was for me. Then, I remembered – it was 19 years to the day when my father had passed on. Oddly, my dad’s death was not at the front of my mind but it was strange that my body ‘remembered’. Of course, the grief does not bite as much as it used to but sometimes it hurts like it is fresh. In fact, I don’t believe one ever ‘recovers’ from a death of one close to them – we just learn to cope.

In an article published in the Australian Journal of Critical Care in 2015, Dr Arizmendi and O’Connor, put it well and I plagiarize this opening paragraph of their paper titled ‘What is ‘normal’ in grief?’

There is no clear ‘getting over’ grief, just as we do not ‘get over’ our graduation, the birth of a child or our wedding. Of course, these examples are commonly positive events, but the death of a loved one is also an event and it continues to affect us for the rest of our lives. A loss of a loved one is typically experienced in waves of grief, felt deeply in our emotions, present in our thoughts and seen by others in our behaviour. Eventually, for most people, those waves do even out into ripples.

I know exactly what they meant.

My father, Mr. Mwangi Ihiga died on the 17th March 1997. He was only 52 years old – by any standards, a death that occurred way too early. I will not focus on what disease took him away, but on grief. In fact I use a photo taken of him while studying abroad, a few months after I was born. He was here in this cold, gray island where I am currently residing , that is the UK. It shows him at his best, studying, hopeful, building dreams for the wife and two children that he had left at home.

Mwangi Ihiga, 1970

Mwangi Ihiga, 1970

When my dad passed on in 1997, I was an adult, working and therefore the loss would not affect my schooling and way of life as it would if he had passed on when I was younger. Yet for many months, each time when I visited home and heard a car driving past on the road at the back of the house, my heart would literally jump. My whole being would get excited, anticipating daddy’s arrival. I would be doing something in the house and I would catch a whiff of my father’s smell – a comforting smell. I would turn, expecting him to be there. I sometimes wondered whether I was losing my mind. Here I was in my late 20’s, I had seen my father’s dead body, yet I kept reacting as though he would turn up at any time.

His clothes hung in his wardrobe for months. I asked my mother’s approval to place them in the drawers in her room. It took many months before I did this and it took years for mum to take them out of the drawers and give them away to people she thought would make good use of them.

When my dad died, I was entitled to 7 days bereavement leave at my place of work. When I returned to work, there were a lot of people saying, ‘Pole, pole’ (sorry sorry), with that pitiful look in their eyes.
I hated it.

Was I supposed to say ‘It’s Ok’?

It wasn’t.

Yet what else could people say? What else can you tell a grieving person than ‘sorry’?

Then, I was living alone and in the week following the burial, I found it impossible to sleep. I started taking this nice little green bottle of wine or cider, I think it was, called ‘Whisky Black’ or something like that. I have a low threshold for alcohol, so a single bottle gave me a peaceful sleep. I had bought about 10 bottles and when they ran out, I did not get more. I do believe that there is an ‘addiction gene’ or some such tendency – because it’s a wonder that I did not become an alcoholic.

Although I had been active in my church, I had just made a switch to a different one. I did not feel that I belonged to either groups. My faith was hard hit by the death and I really did not want to hear someone preaching to me about it. While some people are drawn to God when death happens, it had the opposite effect for me. I felt terribly let down by God – don’t ask too much about that. It just was like that.

I am no extrovert and during that time with the grief was so acute, I really did not have the energy to look out for people. Sometimes I would get into the house on Friday after work and lock myself indoors, leaving the house on Monday morning to go to work. I did not want to have to pretend to others that I was coping.

A friend called Patricia, came and lived with me for a while and that really helped. Another friend, Annete, would come and stay weekends in my house. These girls did not wait for me to look for them but came looking. But there were a few who were angry with me. I was told what my crime was through others…..

‘Why did she not call me when her father died?’

‘What friendship is this where you can’t tell me when something like this happens?’

‘Are we really friends after all?’

I understand them. There are people who will announce the death of a loved one on Facebook and people can get in touch. I just can’t do that. I just crawled into a tight little ball and stayed there till I felt better. I know I am no different from a lot of other people.

In most Kenyan homes, the days after a death, the family compound is full of people, mostly helping to prepare for the funeral. There will be songs and prayers deep into the night. Then when the funeral is done, everyone disappears. It amazes me how your social life shrinks then. At the point when you most need to talk about things, there is no one to talk to.

I watched my mother navigate her new role as widow. I did not realise the weight of that until I watched my mum. I noticed some friends shrink around her too. She was – as most widows are – blamed by some for my dad’s death. But my mother is a practicing Christian who forgives fully. She chose to focus on the positive energy of those who stood with her – she emerged a stronger, independent woman.

But what is the healthy way to grief?

Do people who publicly display their grief and mourning come up emotionally stronger than those who keep their grief covered? How do you know when you have crossed the line from ‘normal’ grief to ‘complicated’ grief as Dr Arizmendi and O’Connor put it in their paper?

7 comments

  • Ogada

    quite a read though… no one can quite aptly describe grief.

  • mamapompom

    great read Tabs…

  • For me, I would say, there’s no prescription script for ‘any-being’, to grieve healthily or otherwise. It boils down to the individual’s:-
    – personality
    – environment (the one grieving) that they find themselves in
    – and/or how their deceased loved one passed away

    Accepting the reality that you can never again reach out and physically touch, talk in exchange or listen to a loved one in this realm; or be able to physically share momentous occasions/experiences with a loved one that passed away is part of that grief that sneaks up when you momentarily allow yourself to live.

    Yes. It is a case of allowing oneself to cope or learn coping mechanisms of living without a loved one that has passed on each moment/day at a time. Question I find useful: What would my deceased loved one want of me to do?

  • So true..the start of a New Year should be hopeful and filled with promise…I dread it as my father died early in the year and it took me so long to understand why my year only begind to brighten after the anniversary of his death….

  • Tabs

    Thanks for all your comments. Edna – I think also being far away from home, away from close family to ruminate with also makes it harder. Easter is often around the corner where my brothers will be there to crack the jokes that dad repeated to us over the years – always helped….
    I agree with you Grace that it is useful to ask what the loved one would want of you – but grief as you said does affect very differently depending on your personality and those around you.

  • Dolly

    Grief! Grief! Grief…..4years are gone by since my dad collapsed and died. Until today, I do not have a formula to manage grief. My tears flow freely especially when faced with hard life issues I know he would have handled very well on my behalf………below from this reading made some sense….

    “……There is no clear ‘getting over’ grief, just as we do not ‘get over’ our graduation, the birth of a child or our wedding. Of course, these examples are commonly positive events, but the death of a loved one is also an event and it continues to affect us for the rest of our lives. A loss of a loved one is typically experienced in waves of grief, felt deeply in our emotions, present in our thoughts and seen by others in our behaviour. Eventually, for most people, those waves do even out into ripples…….Dr Arizmendi and O’Connor, put it well on their paper titled ‘What is ‘normal’ in grief?’

  • Editta

    Wow Tabs, this is really powerful….and having being there and have you help me through my grieving process was just something that I can never thank you enough for! I believe that we learn to cope with the absence of our loved ones but just like you, early Feb has never been the easiest time but I look back and celebrate the time that we shared together and smile but the pain sets in making it feel like it’s just happened….I would be keen to know what the professionals have to say is the best way of dealing with grief……
    Well written!